Incredibly, the Dubai Metro was the GCC’s first new rail project in over 20 years. To put the current rapid expansion of rail projects into perspective, one only has to contemplate the ambitious GCC Railway Network, set to transform transportation and logistics in the region upon its completion in 2017.
This is not the first time that a project of such a scale has been conceived for the region. One only has to look at the famous Hejaz Rail Link in the early twentieth century in the Ottoman Empire. This line conveyed pilgrims from Damascus in Syria to the holy city of Madinah in Saudi Arabia, through the Hejaz region, covering 1,300km of desert. Unfortunately, the line was damaged in World War One and subsequently closed, marking a decisive end in the region’s rail infrastructure … until now.
In this issue we report on some of the major rail and metro projects underway. It is clear that the successful Dubai Metro has set a benchmark for integrated public transport, and many countries – from Qatar to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – are developing their own systems.
The development of the region’s rail infrastructure extends far beyond public transport though. To date, the GCC has had to rely mainly on its road network to move goods. Indeed, cross-border trade is solely reliant on road transport at the moment. This is also due to the fact that air transport is expensive, while coastal shipping is not that feasible.
However, as Frost & Sullivan points out in a research report, moving goods by road entails huge costs and long transit periods, which has the effect of placing an artificial glass ceiling on the growth of the region’s logistics industry. Such hindrances and artificial constraints also impact on the investment plans of international companies looking to do business in the region.
Frost & Sullivan argue that rail is the most efficient transport mode for essential building supplies such as stone, concrete and cement, largely due to the fact that transport costs decline as distance increases.
Of course, there are problems and barriers. Except for Saudi Arabia, the GCC countries average 250km to 300km end-to-end, while rail networks are at their most efficient at distances of over 500km.
Then there is the desert terrain itself with its shifting sands and unstable ground surface. And finally there is the considerable investment required for rail projects, from materials, equipment and labour through to initial development and management.
While the GCC Railway Network is probably one of the most significant infrastructure projects ever undertaken in the region, Frost & Sullivan point out that the six member states must first get their national networks in order before they can reap maximum benefit from such a system.
A range of rail experts and consultants all point out that the GCC needs some kind of coordinating or overseeing body to ensure that best practice is adhered to. It is one thing to think big, but accurate and thoughtful planning is critical to successful implementation.